“I came in like a wrecking ball, I never hit so hard in love, All I wanted was to break your walls, All you ever did was wreck me, Yeah, you, you wreck me…” – Miley Cyrus, Wrecking Ball.

And thus, the illustrious Dominic Perrottet came swinging in on a wrecking ball, invoking perhaps Miley Cyrus and her infamous 2013 music video, out to erase a hit list of buildings which he has declared blemishes blighting the beauty of Sydney – from the MLC Centre to the Cahill Expressway, from Sydney Aquarium to every Brutalist Building, ever.

Rare though it is for our political overlords to even contemplate the role of beauty in city making, our treasurer’s recent tongue-in-cheek opinion piece on bulldozing buildings in our city exposes the classical trap of neoliberal economic development, which even in the age of resource depletion and climate catastrophe, we still seem incapable of shaking off.

A call to rethink cradle to grave building

It is true, many of the buildings and structures he identifies are, for much of the public imagination, eyesores upon our otherwise pristine harbour front – our Circular Quay cut from the city by an expressway, our sandstone headlands defined by a singular tower of private apartments, 1960s functionalism smashed up against our Classical and Gothic jewels.

But at a time when our National Waste Policy found in 2018 that construction and demolition accounted for 20.4 megatons (30 per cent) of total waste generation, as well as accounting for 30 per cent of global extraction of natural resources, the imperative to think more critically and actively about recycling and reuse has never been more important. Perrottet’s argument of taking a sledgehammer to the carbuncles of Sydney remain, regrettably stuck within the traditional model of, taking, making, disposing – seeing the construction cycle and life of our buildings as straight, linear path from cradle to grave.

Tabula rasa is too easy

Beyond this narrative that newer is necessarily better and that what is old must die, and what is new must rise, is an alternative path underpinned by the principle of circular economics. Circular economics forces us to think about what we already have, rather than falling back into the ease of tabula rasa.

As British architect Spencer de Grey of Foster + Partners has remarked, “…with the increasing pressure of sustainability, of survival on this planet, we need, at all times, to be making the best use of what is already built. So, the challenge I think for today, is to find ways of bringing new life to those buildings.”

This paradigm of thinking is the underpinning sustainable heart of adaptive reuse, which has increasingly become an approach to architecture in urban areas no longer confined to the realm of heritage building revitalisation.

Deconstruction, not demolition

There is perhaps no more famous example or catalyst for urban renewal through the disjecta membra of a city’s industrial heritage than that of the New York Central Railroad spur line now known of course as The High Line. 

An almost ten-year transformation project has not only served to provide much needed greenery to the concrete jungle of Manhattan but also revitalised (albeit also gentrified) the Chelsea district. This project was not unique, with the Parisians having undertaken a similar exercise with La Promenade Plantee in 1993 by reclaiming the tracks of the Vincennes railway line.

More recently, removing overland expressways in central Seoul led to the restoration of the Gaecheon stream that ran through the heart of the city, converted into a lineal park now known as Cheonggyecheon.

Closer to home, the revitalisation of AMP’s Quay Quarter involved recycling two-thirds of the original 1976 building’s concrete core, raising the building’s height from 188m to 216m while also upgrading amenities, providing improved solar access and targeting a six-star Green Star rating.

The soon-to-be-completed Greenland Centre in Sydney’s CBD, similarly, advocated a careful process of deconstruction, stripping the old Sydney Water tower back to its steel bones, and from it, adapting the site for a new residential function.

Is newer necessarily better?

These exemplary projects are not an argument that the banning of demolition must somehow become an absolute. Rather, what they show and what we should be encouraging is thinking critically about what we can reuse, what we can recycle and what we can reimagine, a process which should at the very least, be the starting point of any discussion in our quest to reshape the city in every epoch.

And as to that omnipresent question of whether newer is necessarily better? Well, perhaps our newly minted hundred storey casino provides a clue to answering that question…

Hugo Chan is Director & Architect (ARB 10803) of his own research-driven design practice, Studio HC as well as Architect and Associate, Practice Management at Cracknell & Lonergan Architects. Hugo’s research interests lie in unpackaging adaptive reuse in architecture as fundamental to the cultural and ecological sustainment of urban contexts. This article arises in part from the outcomes of his 2018/19 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship which resulted in a research report, Alternative Realities: Approaches to Adaptive Reuse in Architecture and a public lecture delivered as part of the 2018 Centenary Symposium on Cathedral Thinking here. The research project remains ongoing as a developing YouTube channel via the Alternative Realities Explainer Series.

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